Sonic Imagery in Stephen Crane’s Work
Stephen Crane, one of America’s foremost writers of the realist genre, frequently used a sonic aesthetic to breathe life into his descriptions of poor urban environments. In both Maggie: A Girl of the Streets and Experiment in Misery, Crane associates loud and chaotic dissonance with the poor urban community. The shared experience of loud, dissonant sounds identifies and strengthens the community within these poor urban spaces. On the other side, Crane typifies the wealthier with low volumes and pleasant music. The middle and high classes are able to escape such cacophony, and are afforded the luxury of soft, low and indistinct sound and music. Crane also highlights sound when penniless characters are reminded of their inability to elevate their own status, again portraying sound as a representational form to convey social standings. Crane’s illustrations of sound essentially give representational form to the social phenomenon of inequality.
Crane’s descriptions of sound as disorderly and inharmonious amplify the chaos and suffering within the cramped confines of poor communities; this sonic discord marks and strengthens the destitute as a solidified social group. As Mary beats Maggie for breaking a plate, Jimmie listens to the hall of his apartment complex: “Above the muffled roar of conversation, the dismal wailings of babies at night, the thumping of feet in unseen corridors and rooms, and the sound of varied hoarse shoutings in the street and the rattling of wheels over cobbles, they heard the screams of the child and the roars of the mother die away to a feeble moaning and a subdued bass muttering” (Crane 10). Words like “roar,” “wailings,” “thumping,” “shoutings,” “rattling” and “screams,” convey intense volume and evoke images of disorder. The clamor of sound reflects the chaos of this poor urban community. The choice of the word “dismal” also conveys the distress of the members of this collective community, while the word “hoarse” to describe the shouting evokes the image that this individual has been continuously shouting in anguish or pain. The phrase “unseen corridors and room” communicates the ignored nature of this destitute community. Moreover, Crane describes the sounds of the tenement as cramped and collective. While there are distinguishable wails, and Maggie and Mary’s screams can be heard dying down, the descriptions of the sounds are continuously listed one after another, almost combining to form this single dissonant note that is unique to poor, suffering communities. The wailings, roars, thumping and rattling all amalgamate to create this representational form of the poor’s class standing and suffering. After Maggie dies, Mary’s loudly weeps, “rocking her body heavily to and fro, and crying out in a high strained voice that sounded like a dirge on some forlorn pipe” (Crane 74). The rhetoric and comparisons of Mary’s voice to a lament of the dead from a pitifully sad instrument underline the sonic intensity and the extent of the pain that she experiences. Mary’s loud and exaggerated reaction acts as a calling signal for her poor urban community; her sounds summon her neighbors to gather and loudly grieve with her: “Two or three spectators were sniffing, and one was weeping loudly… The women burst anew into cries as if they had been stabbed” (Crane 74-75). Mary’s ability to loudly call for her community conveys how Crane uses sound as a representational strategy to depict the poor as a collective. Mary simply needs to loudly wail, and her penniless peers come to cry and sympathize with her. In this sense, cacophony and the chaos of the sonic is a key identifier of the collective poor, and strengthens and solidifies the community.
In An Experiment in Misery, Crane also gives representational form to the lower class through descriptions of sound. At a homeless shelter, the youth hears the “guttural cries, grunts, oaths” of sleeping men, and a man who, because of a nightmare, “began to utter long wails that went almost like yells from a hound, echoing wailfully” (Crane 82). Much like in Maggie, phrases like “guttural cries, grunts, oaths” and “long wails” signify pain and suffering. Furthermore, the comparison of the man’s wails to the “yells from a hound” also evokes comparisons of the destitute man and a loud mutt, essentially placing the youth and the dog on the same level. Also, similar to in Maggie, the communal cries and wails of these men indicate a sense of community or shared sense of misery within the shelter. Crane even explicitly states this idea: “The sound, in its high piercing beginnings that dwindled to final melancholy moans, expressed a red and grim tragedy of the unfathomable possibilities of the man’s dreams” (82). The shared experience of the unpleasantly sonic links these men together. These sounds simply do not come out of individuals but represent the room’s shared sense of impossibility and lost hope.
Whereas the poor must collectively suffer through cacophony, the wealthier are able to indulge in subdued, indistinct sounds and music, which only further signifies the divide between the rich and poor. When Pete takes Maggie on a date to a theatre for the middle class, they hear a “low rumble of conversation and a subdued clinking of glasses” (Crane 25). Words like “low,” “rumble,” and “subdued” indicate a pleasant level of volume, a stark contrast to the loudness that characterizes Maggie’s tenement. In the theatre, people can talk freely and not have to shout over the noise of the city – an unfamiliar concept to Maggie. In this sense, wealthier people can “afford” to carve places in the city where they have space and quiet. They have the luxury of a peaceful level of sound that the poor cannot bear the expense of. Maggie, undeniably a member of the lower class, savors this pleasantly sonic experience – it is a break from the chaos of home life. She also experiences the luxury of music at the theatre: she enjoys a singer’s “brazen soprano tones,” and the singer is praised with “long rollings of applause” (Crane 27). While words like “brazen,” “soprano” and “long rollings” impart a sense that the singer’s voice is loud and shrill and the audience is noisy, there is still a significant difference between the volume in the theatre and the volume in Maggie’s tenement or the shelter in Experiment. The loudness in the theatre is celebratory, whereas the uproar of poorer areas communicates a sense of suffering and pain. The singer’s audience is overjoyed with the singer’s boisterous performance. They extol her ability to command sound and showcase it to a public willing to relish in her loudness. The theatre reacts similarly to subsequent singers and the orchestra which played “noisily,” as a small fat man begins to “roar a song” and “stamp back and forth” (Crane 29). The crowd “laughed gleefully,” and “broke out in excited applause” (Crane 29). Musical uproar is not a sign of discord for the middle and high class, but as a means of entertainment and mode of happiness. The poor does not have music. Instead, they hear the wailings of babies and hoarse shoutings. They simply cannot afford the luxury of happily listening and dancing to music in the company of a gleeful and celebratory crowd. Crane’s descriptions of the middle class enjoying low, subdued conversation and melodic and euphonious music essentially gives representational form to the lives of the middle class.
Crane often pairs a sonic aesthetic with moments when low class characters are alienated and reminded of their inability to elevate their own status. When Maggie and Pete go to a bar primarily filled with the middle-class patrons, she meets Nellie, a woman who essentially undermines Maggie’s plans to marry Pete. The club’s sonic atmosphere starkly contrasts to the theatre’s: “The room rang with the shrill voices of women bubbling over with drink-laughter. The chief element in the music of the orchestra was speed. The musicians played in intent fury. A woman was singing and smiling upon the stage, but no one took notice of her” (Crane 54). “Shrill” has a negative connotation, evoking images of piercing shrieks. The music, previously a sign of excitement and celebration, is now rushed, and played with calculated “fury.” A singer is practically ignored and not applauded like the singer from the theatre. Those who attend this bar do not indulge in the art of the sonic as they had before. Crane’s deliberate rhetoric serves as a reminder to Maggie, presumably one of the only members of the low class at the bar, of her cacophonous poor community. At this club, Nellie seduces Pete, and Maggie is unable to participate in Pete and Nellie’s conversation: “Maggie sat still, unable to formulate an intelligent sentence as her addition to the conversation and painfully aware of it” (Crane 55). Not only is sonic chaos an indicator of Maggie’s decline in the novel, but it is a harsh reminder of her low-class life – her true status. Unlike before when Maggie was able to assimilate and celebrate with the audience of the theatre, she can no longer connect with Pete and Nellie, members of the higher class. The change in the volume of sound and music in the theatre versus in the bar helps to represent Maggie’s shift from hope for joining the higher class to realization that she cannot. Similarly, in An Experiment in Misery, sound reminds the narrator of his alienation from the higher class and his inability to escape destitution. As the end of the short story, the protagonist wanders through New York and hears the “roar of the city” (Crane 88). This “roar” is different than the roars of Maggie’s apartment complex or the homeless shelter – that dissonance is on a smaller scale. The whole city is unfamiliar to him; he cannot distinguish certain wails and cries and he has not seen the faces and bodies of those who make such noise. In this case, the “roar of the city” further removes him from assimilating into the overall city, not just enclaves for the poor. He “confesses” himself an “outcast,” and begins to wear the “criminal expression that comes with certain convictions” (Crane 88). The dissonance of the city makes him feel alienated and less able, unlike the discordance of the shelter, a community he strongly identifies with.
Part of Crane’s representational strategy essentially imparts to the reader how sound represents different forms of social status. He characterizes the poor urban community with descriptions of uproar and clamor, and emphasizes how this dissonance strengthens this community. On the other hand, Crane describes low volumes and pleasant music as a luxury that only the middle and high class can indulge in. Crane also uses cacophony as a representational strategy to humble the penniless and alienate them from their wealthier environments. The representation of sonic discordance being a mark of the poor community has not changed since Crane wrote Maggie: A Girl of the Streets and An Experiment in Misery in the 19th century. Today, urban noise pollution is worst in poor and minority neighborhoods and segregated cities, and has physically affected members of these poorer communities (Casey).
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Stephen Crane, one of America’s foremost writers of the realist genre, frequently used a sonic aesthetic to breathe life into his descriptions of poor urban environments. In both Maggie: A […]